Series: Oh Say Can You See? III
Entry 5: “Ground Zero”: Part 2
Click here to go to “Ground Zero”: Part 1
Please Note: Because of the nature of the topic,
this material unavoidably contains disturbing descriptions and photos.
Read at your own discretion.
Be sure to read Part 1 of Ground Zero in order to understand the background of this material.
Between May 31 and June 1 in 1921, a whole black community with a population of about 10,000 American citizens was totally destroyed by fire. This included over 1,200 homes and virtually every business building in the community. Here was what was left of the downtown main street. Although the area was commonly referred to by residents as Greenwood, this postcard shows clearly that it was given by area whites the typical racist epithet of “Dark Town” (used across the US, particularly in the South, for any negro community.) As the author of the caption put it, this is “what is left of the largest office building Dark Town possessed.”
And here is a sample of what was left in most of the residential neighborhoods.
(For a description of this community, Greenwood in north Tulsa, Oklahoma, before the holocaust, see the first installment of this “Ground Zero” blog segment.)
This disaster was not the result of an “accident” such as an explosion of a nearby oil refinery. Nor was it an “Act of God.” No, it wasn’t the result of a wildfire, or fires started after an earthquake or tornado. It was an Act of Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
The events in Tulsa didn’t occur in a vacuum…
By the spring of 1921, trouble — real trouble — had been brewing in Tulsa for some time. When it came to issues of race — not just in Tulsa or in Oklahoma, but all across American — the problems weren’t simply brewing. They had, in fact, already arrived.
In the long and often painful history of race relations in the United States, few periods were as turbulent as the years surrounding World War I, when the country exploded into an era of almost unprecedented racial strife. In the year 1919 alone, more than two dozen different race riots broke out in cities and towns across the nation. Unlike the racial disturbances of the 1960s and the 1990s, these riots were characterized by the specter of white mobs invading African American neighborhoods, where they attacked black men and women and, in some cases, set their homes and businesses on fire.
These riots were set off in different ways. In Chicago, long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites over housing, recreation, and jobs were ignited one Sunday afternoon in late July 1919. A group of teenaged African American boys, hoping to find some relief from the rising temperatures, climbed aboard a homemade raft out on Lake Michigan. They ended up drifting opposite an all-white beach. The white beach-goers, meanwhile, who were already angered by an attempt by a group of black men and women to utilize that beach earlier that day, began hurling stones at the youths, killing one, and setting off nearly two weeks of racial terror. In the end, more than thirty-eight people — both black and white — were killed in Chicago, and scores and scores of homes were burned to the ground. [SOURCE: unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source.]
It happened even in the nation’s capital…
… the nation’s capital erupted into racial violence, as groups of white soldiers, sailors, and Marines began to “molest any black person in sight, hauling them off of streetcars and out of restaurants, chasing them up alleys, and beating them mercilessly on street corners”. At least six people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. After whites threatened to set fire to African American neighborhoods, order was finally restored when the secretary of war called out some two-thousand federal troops to patrol the streets.
As chronicled in earlier entries in this Oh Say Can You See? III blog series, one of the most gut-wrenching and chilling manifestations of this racial animosity was the practice of lynching:
…In 1919 alone, more than seventy-five blacks were lynched by white mobs — including more than a dozen black soldiers, some of whom were murdered while still in uniform. Moreover, many of the so-called lynchings were growing ever more barbaric. During the first year following the war, eleven African Americans were burned — alive — at the stake by white mobs.
If you were a black American citizen in those terrible years, how do you think you would have felt about your personal safety?
Yes, that’s how they felt…
Across the nation, blacks bitterly resisted these attacks, which were often made worse by the fact that in many instances, local police authorities were unable or unwilling to disperse the white mobs. As the violence continued, and the death count rose, more and more African American leaders came to the conclusion that nothing less than the very future of black men and women in America hung in the balance.
They were right to worry. Which brings us to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma had long been plagued by lynchings, and during the territorial days, numerous suspected horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and outlaws, the vast majority of whom were white, had been lynched by white mobs. However, from 1911 onward, all of the state’s lynching victims, save one, were African American. And during the next decade, twenty-three black Oklahomans — including two women — were lynched by whites in more than a dozen different Oklahoma communities, including Anadarko, Ardmore, Eufaula, Holdenville, Idabel, Lawton, Madill, Mannford, Muldrow, Norman, Nowata, Okemah, Oklahoma City, Purcell, Shawnee, Wagoner, and Wewoka.
That included this woman who, as noted on the front of the “souvenir postcard,” was lynched in Okemah, Oklahoma, (about 60 miles south of Tulsa) in 1911.
Just to be very clear, here: The occurrence of these “lynchings” on American soil meant that the normal “right to a trial” of an American citizen or citizens had been totally circumvented, and the lynch mob had become the accuser, judge, jury, and executioner—and all too often, grotesque torturer—of someone. Records are available of numerous incidents in which people were lynched for alleged crimes … and later determined by the authorities to have been innocent. This includes a number of notorious cases in which white women accused a black man of assault or rape… and then later admitted that they had lied about the incident—no such assault had ever taken place. In at least one recorded case like this, the woman had been with a white lover who became “rough” with her, leaving her bruised and perhaps with torn clothes. She HAD to have an excuse to tell her husband, so the “easiest” alibi was that a black man had attacked and raped her. The police accepted her identification of a suspect, and took him away. A mob then wrested him from police custody. Unfortunately, the lynching occurred before her conscience got to her…or the truth caught up with her.
Which brings us to Tulsa.
In August of 1920, a young white man named Roy Belton was accused of the shooting of another white man in an aborted robbery attempt. He was taken into custody and incarcerated at the jail in the Courthouse in Tulsa. On August 28, the victim died from his injuries.
By 11:00 p.m. that same evening, hundreds of whites had gathered outside of the courthouse. Soon, a delegation of men carrying rifles and shotguns, some with handkerchiefs covering their faces, entered the building and demanded of Sheriff Woolley that he turn Belton over to them. The sheriff later claimed that he tried to dissuade the intruders, but he appears to have done little to stop them. For a little while later, the men appeared on the courthouse steps with Roy Belton. “We got him boys,” they shouted, “We’ve got him.
They drove Belton to a spot several miles out of the city, followed by a cavalcade of cars carrying observers, and there hung him.
…Among the crowd — estimated to be in the hundreds — were members of the Tulsa police, who had been instructed by Chief Gustafson not to intervene. “Any demonstration from an officer,” he later claimed, “would have started gun play and dozens of innocent people would have been killed and injured.”
In the days that followed, however, Gustafson practically applauded the lynching. While claiming to be “absolutely opposed” to mob law, the police chief also stated “it is my honest opinion that the lynching of Roy Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and the vicinity. It was an object lesson to the hijackers and auto thieves.” Sheriff Woolley echoed the chief, claiming that the lynching showed criminals “that the men of Tulsa mean business…”
Nor were Tulsa’s top lawmen alone in their sentiments. The Tulsa Tribune, the city’s afternoon daily, also claimed to be opposed to mob law, but offered little criticism of the actual lynching party. The Tulsa World, the morning daily, went even further. Calling the lynching a “righteous protest”, the newspaper added: “There was not a vestige of the mob spirit in the act of Saturday night. It was citizenship, outraged by government inefficiency and a too tender regard for the professional criminal.” The World went on to blast the current state of the criminal justice system, ominously adding, “we predict that unless conditions are speedily improved”, that the lynching of Roy Belton “will not be the last by any means.”
…Thus, the question [logically!] arose, if another mob ever gathered in Tulsa to lynch someone else, who was going to stop them?
The lynching of Roy Belton cast a deep pall over black Tulsa. For even though [the victim] Homer Nida, Roy Belton, and the lynching party itself had all been white, there was simply no escaping the conclusion that if Belton had been black, he would have been lynched just the same, and probably sooner. What about the next time that an African American was charged with a serious crime in Tulsa, particularly if it involved a white victim? What would happen then?
They were soon to find out.
A.J. Smitherman [seen below, on the right], the outspoken editor of the Tulsa Star, the city’s oldest and most popular African American newspaper, was absolutely resolute on the matter of lynching.
“There is no crime, however atrocious,” he wrote following the lynching of Roy Belton, “that justifies mob violence.” For Smitherman, lynching was not simply a crime to be condemned, but was literally a “stain” upon society.
Nor was Smitherman alone in his sentiments. If there was one issue which united African Americans all across the nation, it was opposition to mob law. Moreover, that opposition was particularly strong in Oklahoma, as many blacks had immigrated to the state in no small measure to escape the mob mentality that was far from uncommon in some other parts of the country.
However, both the lynching of Roy Belton in Tulsa, and that of a young African American in Oklahoma City that same week, brought to the surface some dire practical issues. In a situation where a black prisoner was being threatened by a white mob, what should African Americans do? Smitherman was quite clear on the answer.
… The death of Roy Belton shattered any confidence that black Tulsans may have had in the ability, or the willingness, of local law enforcement to prevent a lynching from taking place in Tulsa. It also had done something else. For more than a few black Tulsans, the bottom line on the matter had become clearer than ever. Namely, the only ones who might prevent the threatened lynching of an African American prisoner in Tulsa would be black Tulsans themselves.
It took only nine months for them to find that their concerns were practical.
The prelude to the Greenwood Holocaust began on Memorial Day, May 30, 1921. Most downtown Tulsa businesses were closed, waiting for the annual parade. But the building where 19 year old Dick Rowland was working as a shoeshine boy was open for business.
There were no toilet facilities, however, for blacks at the shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked. The owner had arranged for his African American employees to be able to use a “Colored” restroom that was located, nearby, in the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. In order to gain access to the washroom, located on the top floor, Rowland and the other shoe shiners would ride in the building’s sole elevator. Elevators were not automatic, requiring an operator. A job that was usually reserved for women.
In late May 1921, the elevator operator at the Drexel Building was a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Thought to have come to Tulsa from Missouri, she apparently lived in a rented room on North Boston Avenue. It also has been reported that Page was attending a local business school, a good career move at the time.
Whether – and to what extent — Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly rode in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom.
… What is certain, however, is that at some point on Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland entered the elevator operated by Sarah Page that was situated at the rear of the Drexel Building.
What happened next is anyone’s guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. …it simply is unclear what happened.
… A clerk from Renberg’s, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel Building, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Hearing what he thought was a woman’s scream, and apparently seeing Dick Rowland hurriedly flee the building, the clerk rushed to the elevator, where he found a distraught Sarah Page. Evidently deciding that the young elevator operator had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault, the clerk then summoned the police.
While it appears that the clerk stuck to his interpretation that there had been an attempted rape — and of a particularly incendiary kind — no record exists as to what Sarah Page actually told the police when they initially interviewed her. Whatever she said at the time, however, it does not appear that the police officers who interviewed her necessarily reached the same potentially explosive conclusion as that made by the Renberg’s clerk, namely, that a black male had attempted to rape a white female in a downtown office building. Rather than issue any sort of an all-points bulletin for the alleged assailant, it appears that the police launched a rather low-key investigation into the affair.
… in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.
And evidently Sarah Page agreed with them…for AFTER all the hideous events we are about to investigate happened, records indicate that Sarah Page—who left town almost immediately afterward—wrote back to the District Attorney of Tulsa, asking that whatever charges had been made against Dick Rowland be dropped. In other words, ALL the incidents of depraved mob violence that I am about to describe to you, which can be traced back to this one flash point, were even more hopelessly pointless from any rational point of view than they might seem looking back now if one thought that AT LEAST some heinous crime by a black person led to the events.
But no one knew about this “rest of the story” on May 30.
Whatever had or had not happened in the Drexel Building elevator, Dick Rowland had become a justly terrified young man. For of all the crimes that African American men would be accused of in early twentieth century America, none seemed to bring a white lynch mob together faster than an accusation of the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman. Frightened and agitated, Rowland hastened to his adopted mother’s home, where he stayed inside with blinds drawn.
The next morning, Tuesday, May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was arrested on Greenwood Avenue by two Tulsa police officers, Detective Henry Carmichael, who was white, and by Patrolman Henry C. Pack, who was one of a handful of African Americans on the city’s approximately seventy-five man police force. Rowland was booked at police headquarters, and then taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Informed that her adopted son was in custody, Damie Ford seems to have lost no time in hiring a prominent white attorney to defend him.
Word of both the alleged incident in the Drexel Building, and of the subsequent arrest of the alleged perpetrator, quickly spread throughout the city’s legal circles. Black attorney B.C. Franklin was sitting in the courtroom during a recess in a trial when he overheard some other lawyers discussing what he later concluded was the alleged rape attempt. “I don’t believe a damn word of it,” one of the men said, “Why I know that boy and have known him a good while. That’s not in him.”
On the other side of the Racial Divide, among people who didn’t “know that boy” … and didn’t know that girl, and who didn’t know any of the details of the circumstances, there was equal certainty. He was black, she was white, an allegation of some sort of sexual impropriety had been made (not a rape, but some type of attempted physical contact)… and that was all they needed to know.
The local Tulsa Tribune, known widely for its “Yellow Journalism” … much like the “tabloids” of today… glibly plugged the story of the arrest on the cover of the newspaper, circumventing the need for “word” to be spread by just the verbal grapevine.
The Tuesday, May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune hit the streets at about 3:15 p.m.. And while the “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” was far from being the most prominent story on the front page of the city edition, it was the story that garnered the most attention. Making his way through downtown toward his office in Greenwood shortly after the Tribune rolled off the presses, attorney B.C. Franklin later recalled that “as I walked leisurely along the sidewalk, I heard the sharp shrill voice of a newsboy, “A Negro assaults a white girl.”
Indeed, lynch talk came right on the heels of the Tribune’s sensational reporting. Ross T. Warner, the white manager of the downtown offices of the Tulsa Machine and Tool Company, wrote that after the Tribune came out that afternoon, “the talk of lynching spread like a prairie fire.” Similar memories were shared by Dr. Blaine Waynes, an African American physician and his wife Maude, who reported that after the Tribune was issued that day, that rumors of the “intended lynching of the accused Negro” spread so swiftly and ominously that even “the novice and stranger” could readily sense the fast-approaching chain of events that was about to unfold. By 4:00 p.m., the talk of lynching Dick Rowland had already grown so ubiquitous that Police and Fire Commissioner J.M. Adkison telephoned Sheriff Willard McCullough and alerted him to the ever-increasing talk on the street.
Talk soon turned into action. As word of the alleged sexual assault in the Drexel Building spread, a crowd of whites began to gather on the street outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse, in whose jail Dick Rowland was being held. As people got off of work, and the news of the alleged attack reported in the Tribune became more widely dispersed across town, more and more white Tulsans, infuriated by what had supposedly taken place in the Drexel Building, began to gather outside the courthouse at Sixth and Boulder. By sunset — which came at 7:34 p.m. that evening — observers estimated that the crowd had grown into the hundreds. Not long afterwards, cries of “Let us have the nigger” could be heard echoing off of the walls of the massive stone courthouse.
Since the time of the Roy Belton lynching, a new sheriff had been sworn in, Willard M McCullough.
… Determined that there would be no repeat of the Roy Belton affair during his time in office, he quickly took steps to ensure the safety of Dick Rowland. Organizing his small force of deputies into a defensive ring around his now terrified prisoner, McCullough positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He also disabled the building’s elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight.
McCullough also went outside, on the courthouse steps, and tried to talk the would-be lynch mob into going home, but was “hooted down” when he spoke. At approximately 8:20 p.m., in a near replay of the Belton incident, three white men entered the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff turn over Rowland, but were angrily turned away. Even though his small force was vastly outnumbered by the ever-increasing mob out on the street, McCullough, unlike his predecessor, was determined to prevent another lynching.
It is indeed admirable that this man was dedicated to justice rather than endorsing mob violence, as his predecessor had done! But as will be seen shortly, his efforts at controlling mob violence were all in vain.
Back in Greenwood, among the blacks, concern mounted to a fever pitch.
Word of the alleged incident at the Drexel Building, and of the white mob that was gathering outside of the courthouse, meanwhile, also had raced across Greenwood. After reading the stories in the afternoon’s Tribune, Willie Williams, a popular junior at Booker T. Washington High School, had hurried over to his family’s flagship business, the Dreamland Theater, at 127 N. Greenwood. Inside, he found a scene of tension and confusion. “We’re not going to let this happen,” declared a man who had leapt onto the theater’s stage, “We’re going to go downtown and stop this lynching. Close this place down.”
Outside, similar discussions were taking place up and down Greenwood Avenue, as black Tulsans debated how to respond to the increasingly dire threat to Dick Rowland. B.C. Franklin later recalled two army veterans out in the street, urging the crowd gathered about them to take immediate action, while perhaps the most intense discussions were held in the offices of the Tulsa Star, the city’s premier African American newspaper.
What went unspoken was the fact an African American had never been lynched in Tulsa. How to prevent one from taking place now was no easy matter. It was not simply the crime that Dick Rowland had been charged with — although that, by itself, made the situation particularly dire. Rather, with the lynching of Roy Belton only nine months earlier, there was now no reason at all to place much confidence in the ability of the local authorities to protect Dick Rowland from the mob of whites that was gathering outside the courthouse. However, exactly how to respond was of utmost concern.
The final conclusion of the majority of the leading men discussing their options was to make a “show of strength” by showing up at the courthouse armed.
Despite some entreaties to the contrary, at about 9:00 p.m. a group of approximately twenty-five African American men [including, evidently, some veterans in their World War I uniforms] decided to cast their lot not only with an endangered fellow member of the race, but also, literally, upon the side of justice. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they drove down to the courthouse, where the white mob had gathered. Armed with rifles and shotguns, the men got out of their automobiles, and marched to the courthouse steps. Their purpose, they announced to the no doubt stunned authorities, was to offer their services toward the defense of the jail — an offer that was immediately declined. Assured that Dick Rowland was safe, the men then returned to their automobiles, and drove back to Greenwood.
Note that they had not addressed the assembling mob, nor had they discharged any weapons. They spoke with the authorities, and, satisfied, left. But obviously a red flag had been waved in front of the bull.
The visit of the African American veterans had an electrifying effect, however, on the white mob, now estimated to be more than one thousand strong. Denied Rowland by Sheriff McCullough, it had been clear for some time that this was not to be an uncomplicated repetition of the Belton affair. The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen. Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns..
Others, however, made a beeline for the National Guard Armory, at Sixth and Norfolk, where they intended to gain access to the rifles and ammunition stored inside. Major James A. Bell, an officer with the local National Guard units — “B” Company, the Service Company, and the Sanitary Detachment, all of the Third Infantry Regiment of the Oklahoma National Guard — had already been notified of the trouble brewing down at the courthouse, and had telephoned the local authorities in order to better understand the overall situation. “I then went to the Armory and called up the Sheriff and asked if there was any indications of trouble down there”, Bell later wrote, “The sheriff reported that there were some threats but did not believe it would amount to anything, that in any event he could protect his prisoner.” Bell also phoned Chief Gustafson, who reported, “Things were a little threatening.”
Despite such vague answers, Major Bell took the initiative and began to quietly instruct local guardsmen — who were scheduled to depart the next day for their annual summer encampment — to report down at the armory in case they were needed that evening. Meanwhile, a guardsman informed Bell that a mob of white men was attempting to break into the armory. As Bell later reported:
“Grabbing my pistol in one hand and my belt in the other I jumped out of the back door and running down the west side of the Armory building I saw several men apparently pulling at the window grating. Commanding these men to get off the lot and seeing this command obeyed I went to the front of the building near the southwest corner where I saw a mob of white men about three or four hundred strong. I asked them what they wanted. One of them replied, “Rifles and ammunition”, I explained to them that they could not get anything here. Someone shouted, “We don’t know about that, we guess we can.” I told them that we only had sufficient arms and ammunition for our own men and that not one piece could go out of there without orders from the Governor, and in the name of the law demanded that they disperse at once. They continued to press forward in a threatening manner when with drawn pistol I again demanded that they disperse and explained that the men in the Armory were armed with rifles loaded with ball ammunition and that they would shoot promptly to prevent any unauthorized person entering there.”
“By maintaining a firm stand,” Bell added, “. . . this mob was dispersed.”
Major Bell’s actions were both courageous and effective but as the night wore on, similar efforts would be in exceedingly short supply. With each passing minute, Tulsa was a city that was quickly spinning out of control.
Just HOW out of control would be clear 24 hours later, when something like 9000 people found themselves homeless and at least 75 people lay dead. By some reports, the death toll was much higher, with records totally muddled by the chaotic aftermath of the event. Some fairly strong testimony indicates the total number may have been as high as 300. For instance …
“O.T. Johnson, commandant of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation Army, stated that on Wednesday and Thursday the Salvation Army fed thirty-seven Negroes employed as grave diggers and twenty on Friday and Saturday. During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and covered over with dirt.”
Yes, 24 hours after Tulsa began “spinning out of control”…the hoped-for Promised Land turned out to be, instead, Gehenna.
The route from a single unsubstantiated accusation of a criminal act to the substantiated reality of the worst holocaust ever experienced on American Soil will be tracked in the next entry in this series: